Becoming high maintenance (or not)

photo credit: Gary Bendig, Unsplash

Tenderness and fierceness. They seem to be opposites, and yet, surprisingly, they often go hand-in-hand. I first learned that lesson years ago, growing up on the farm, whenever a new mom – a cow, pig, sheep, chicken or goose – would suddenly become aggressive in their efforts to protect their young. One moment they’d be charging at any intruders and the next moment they’d be tenderly caring for their newborn. Their fierceness created a safe space for their tenderness.

I’ve been writing about (and experimenting with) tenderness lately (watch for a new e-book and day retreat early in the new year), and I’m being reminded, once again, that in order to be tender, we must also be fierce; in order to be soft, we must also be strong; and in order to be vulnerable, we must also have boundaries.

As the mother goose teaches, fierceness serves as a guardian for tenderness, boundaries create a safe container for vulnerability.

In recent years, I have become both softer and stronger than I ever was before. Age, maturity, self-love, and a healthy dose of therapy have brought with them increased clarity about what I want and need, where my boundaries need to be, what triggers me, what wounds are still tender and need protection, what I value, what I will or will not put up with, and where and when I need to be fierce. I am more intentional about guarding my energy, more protective of and tender with myself when I feel deep emotions, less tolerant of abusive behaviour, and more willing to say no to what doesn’t feel good and/or align with my values.

Surprisingly, this pandemic period, with its social isolation and slower pace, has increased that clarity even further. Many hours of solitude (especially as my daughters move out) have helped me become more discerning about what I want and need in my life. It turns out, for example, that I really enjoy my own company and I’m not very willing to give up my solitude unless the alternative enriches my life in some way. It’s not that I don’t like other people’s company – I do, but I’m trusting myself more to choose those relationships and opportunities that honour my tenderness and to say a firm (and sometimes fierce) no to those that don’t.

Like a mother goose hissing at intruders while she tucks her goslings under her wings, I am using my strength to protect my tenderness. I am learning to be my own mother.

Because healing and growth are never linear and the healing of a wound sometimes reveals something deeper that needs attention, I’ve discovered that there’s an interesting side-effect of this increased clarity and self-love. The more I learn to clarify my wants, needs, and boundaries, and the more tender and fierce I become, the more it brings out the voices (mostly internal but sometimes external) that want to convince me that I’m becoming “high maintenance, selfish, self-absorbed, demanding, needy, full of myself, hard to please, overly emotional, picky, difficult, and/or overly particular”.

I have a LOT of scripts in my head about why this isn’t the kind of person I should become. There is a lot of disdain in my family of origin and my culture about people who demand too much and focus too much on their own needs (especially if those people are women). I spent many years of my life believing that the best kind of person was the one who accepted their circumstances without complaint, didn’t raise a fuss when other people were unkind to them, didn’t ask for much, didn’t waste time in self-pity, wasn’t overly emotional, and was self-sacrificial in service to other people. In short, the ideal was always to be nice, calm and agreeable. It wasn’t acceptable to be either too tender or too fierce.

As a result of those internalized standards of goodness, I put up with abuse for far longer than I should have, I spent far too much time trying to keep other people happy, and I tried to prove how tough I was by stuffing down a lot of emotions and needs. Because I didn’t think I was allowed to make a fuss, my boundaries were crossed again and again and I tolerated it because I thought that’s what it meant to be a good person. In essence, I abandoned myself in service to other people.

It’s hard to change those scripts when they’re so deeply engrained in one’s psyche. In my case, and maybe in yours, they’re particularly related to gender and religion, but they’re also present in the broader culture. Think about all of the times we’ve joked about celebrities who expect special things in their backstage dressing rooms (like a bowl full of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed), or about those who get mad when media cameras invade their privacy. Every time we hear jokes like that, we internalize the message that to ask for too much or to ask people to respect our boundaries is to become self-absorbed and a “diva”.

But who are those scripts about what it means to be nice, agreeable, and calm really in service to? They are not in service to me or to you. They are not in service to my children, the people I work with or the people who benefit from my work. They are not in service to anyone I love and am in community with.

Those scripts are ONLY in service to those who have something to gain from our silence, our compliance, and our willingness to put up with abuse. They are in service to those who want to maintain power over us, who benefit from our disempowerment and who make money off our lack of self-worth. They are in service to oppressors, abusers and manipulators.

To be of service to our children, our beloveds, our community members and ourselves, we are much better off when we know ourselves well, when we have clear boundaries, when we refuse to put up with abuse, when we commit to our own healing, and when we learn to articulate our needs and desires. To be of service, we need full access to both our fierceness and our tenderness.

Despite the voices that want me to believe I am becoming high maintenance, I have found that this increased clarity about myself gives me increased clarity about my work, helps me be a better mother to my daughters, protects my energy for the things (and people) that are important to me, and makes me stronger and more well-resourced. My increased fierceness and my increased tenderness benefit both me AND my community.

To be in strong, healthy, and loving relationships is NOT to abandon yourself for other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve learned a surprising thing from raising daughters into adulthood: If I abandon myself, I am less trustworthy to other people. If I abandon myself, they can’t be certain I won’t abandon them. Those who witness me allowing abuse to happen to myself will have reason to believe that I will allow abuse to happen to them too. (I know this because I have been in some hard healing conversations about this very thing.)

My people need me to be both fierce and tender on THEIR behalf and on MY behalf. They need to know that I’ll show up like the mother goose who won’t let harm come to herself or her little goslings.

Ultimately, those relationships with strong social contracts, rooted in deep respect and care for each other’s needs, boundaries, and wounds are much more beneficial for all involved than those relationships where people abandon themselves for each other. I don’t call that “high maintenance” – I call it “holding space”. It’s a practice that is both fierce and tender.

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Want to deepen your practice of holding space for yourself, so that you can be both tender and fierce? Join us for the self-study program 52 Weeks of Holding Space.

Velcro membranes

(from the Holding Space Card Deck)

When I talk about holding space for ourselves, I often introduce the concept of psychic membranes – the container in which we can protect, nourish, and support ourselves. The cell membrane serves as a metaphor for what it means to have healthy boundaries that allow nourishment in, keep harm out, connect us with others, and maintain homeostasis (similar pressure inside and outside the cell). In my book, I go on to imagine how our psychic membranes interact with each other and how we can stretch them into bowls in order to hold space for people. With intact and healthy membranes, we can do this without threatening anyone’s sovereignty.

A new element of this metaphor has emerged for me lately and that’s the idea of Velcro membranes. 

When a healthy membrane interacts with another healthy membrane, those two “cells” can support each other without becoming enmeshed or codependent. They are autonomous beings who have a supportive social contract between them that allows them to choose when and how they wish to be in contact with each other. Healthy membranes allow us to form consent-based environments.

Unfortunately, that kind of healthy interaction doesn’t always happen, and many of us have scars (emotional and physical) from the times it didn’t work that way. Sometimes we do harm to each other and sometimes we develop unhealthy attachment systems.

Unhealthy attachments can look like membranes that have Velcro on their surfaces. Now, instead of coming into contact and maintaining the freedom to choose how and when to interact, the two cells become hooked in a way that doesn’t support the growth and sovereignty of either. The relationship is now codependent and enmeshed and the membranes can’t move independently of each other.

Let’s imagine that the trauma in our lives turns into Velcro on the surface of our membranes. Some of us develop loops and some of us develop hooks (or some combination of the two), and both are attempts to get our needs met. Those of us with loops can easily be hooked in and abused or manipulated by someone, because our traumatized brains convince us that hook-people will help us get our needs met. Those of us with hooks become abusers and manipulators and we hook other people in to try to coerce them into meeting our needs. Those of us with a combination can be both abusers and abused. 

The only way to stop hooking or being hooked is to work on healing the trauma that created the Velcro. As trauma heals it’s like cutting the loops and hooks so that the membrane surface is now covered with nothing more than short threads that are difficult to attach to. 

A healed membrane allows you to begin to enter relationships in a new way. It allows you to explore what a generative social contract might look like, where the best interests of each party are prioritized.

What will you do to start cutting the loops and hooks on the surface of your membrane? And what might need to be done in order to disentangle yourself from those people with whom you’re enmeshed?

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If you want to learn more about psychic membranes, there’s a chapter in my book about them, and you can also learn more in the Holding Space Foundation Program.

Holding Space is Not About Willful Blindness or Complacency in the Face of Injustice

Not long after my first attempt at defining holding space, I changed some of my original language and I added a few important nuances. Specifically:  

  • I stopped talking about “non-judgement” and replaced it with “selective non-judgement”;
  • I started talking about boundaries and limitations and the times when you shouldn’t hold space;
  • I started writing about spiritual bypassing and the many ways we avoid the messiness of the liminal space (i.e. by trying to stay in “love and light”);
  • I evolved my language around “safe space” and started talking more about “brave space”.

Here’s why that matters: If these nuances are not part of the complexity of holding space, then it can be its own form of spiritual bypassing, it can be a justification for willful blindness, and it can make us complicit in allowing harm to be done.

If I hold space without any judgement, discernment, or boundaries, and if I insist on everyone being allowed to express any opinions they want in the spaces I hold without repercussions or accountability, then the spaces I hold can become cauldrons of toxicity and dangerous ideology, they will overlook the abuse of power and they will almost certainly contribute to the further oppression of those who are already marginalized.

I am currently seeing this happening in the wellness/spirituality/yoga communities. People are invoking the language of holding space to gaslight other people for daring to challenge belief systems and worldviews that contribute to oppression. They’re insisting on things like “safe space” and “no divisiveness” and “unity” and “all beliefs are sacred” and “all lives matter” as a way to shame people for challenging racism, fascism, ableism, and other destructive “isms”.

More specifically, this watered down, spiritual bypassing use of the language of holding space has allowed QAnon (a dangerous, cultish belief system rooted in fascist propaganda which espouses beliefs such as “the pandemic is a hoax” and “Trump is a lightworker who will save the world from a powerful cabal of leftist child traffickers”) to take hold in these communities and has stopped people from challenging the destructiveness of it because they don’t want to create divisiveness or judge other people’s beliefs. (Sadly, I suspect that it may be specifically BECAUSE QAnon saw the potential of this type of culture within this community that they put the effort into targeting it. If you’re looking for a fertile field to grow a dangerous belief system, why not target a space where people won’t put up much resistance or be judgmental when their friends buy in?)

 I want to go on record as saying that I DO NOT support this use of a term that has become so close to my heart that I’ve co-founded The Centre for Holding Space (and written a book about it). I AM NOT, nor will I ever be, in support of this language being co-opted for those purposes. And I will not be a bystander and allow this beautiful concept to be corrupted in such a dangerous way.

 “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

 Holding space is NOT about being neutral in situations of injustice. It is about wise discernment, courage, boundaries, anti-oppression, intersectionality, and fierce love. It is about centring the most marginalized and keeping the oppressor out of the circle (unless they show evidence of change and a commitment to repair). It is about daring to have difficult conversations and it’s about transforming conflict.

Holding space is about honouring the sovereignty and seeking the liberation of ALL people. That means not accepting the abuse of those who threaten that sovereignty or try to take that liberation away. 

It doesn’t mean that you have to be unkind to people who’ve bought into belief systems that cause harm, but it means you have to be bold enough to challenge them and, if necessary, keep them out of circles where marginalized people risk being harmed.

Whenever I teach the Foundation Program in holding space, people are always somewhat surprised at the challenge and robustness of it, especially when we get to the part about Holding Space in Complexity. In that module, we talk about power, oppression, intersectionality, and conflict. Suddenly, a concept that started off as simply a way to support a friend through a crisis, or a client through personal or organizational development, becomes somewhat confronting when it calls us to be courageous in the face of injustice and oppression. Suddenly, we are called to be warriors rather than doormats.

From Buddhism, I learned the posture of “strong back and soft belly”. This concept teaches us that we should be welcoming and offer access to our open hearts through our “soft bellies”, but that we should maintain “strong backs”, prepared to become warriors who challenge that which threatens to harm us or other people. This, I believe, is how we should hold space – softness balanced with strength.

That means that there is openness to everyone’s questions, longing, fears, etc., but there are boundaries erected whenever harm is being done. In these spaces, you are allowed to express your beliefs, but you may be challenged if those beliefs don’t honour the dignity and sovereignty of other human beings.

At this point, you may be thinking… “but Heather… it sounds like you’re biased and you get to pick and choose whose belief systems are acceptable in your spaces”. Yes, I will admit to my biases and I will also admit that I am not always right and that I am still learning. (Each of us has biases and to pretend otherwise is another form of willful blindness.) As much as I can, I try to be biased on the side of justice, equity, and the sovereignty and dignity of ALL people. That means that sometimes I choose to intentionally centre the more marginalized and ask that those with more privilege relinquish some of that privilege (and dare to have the belief systems and biases connected to that privilege be challenged). That may feel uncomfortable for some, but I believe that it is the way that we will build more equitable and just spaces.

If you wish to hold space in a way that does not inadvertently create spaces of intentional blindness where dangerous ideas are allowed to grow unchecked, here are some tips:

  1. Be clear and transparent about your values. Let people know that you will err on the side of justice and that you will not be neutral in the face of injustice. Check out the values statements that we have posted on our Centre for Holding Space site for examples. The more clarity you have, the more prepared you’ll be to set healthy boundaries and communicate with those who cross them.
  2. Be clear about what is acceptable in the spaces you host. If you are a group facilitator, pastor, community leader, teacher, etc., it’s good practice to post what is acceptable, and/or invite people in your groups to collectively develop a set of agreements that articulate what is acceptable and then ask that everyone adhere to those agreements.
  3. Work in community and develop a culture where vulnerability is valued and people can be open about their own biases and blindspots. Build trust and a strong container among your co-leaders so that when someone’s blindspots become clear to them they have the resources and support to work through any shame that might be triggered. (This is why I am now in partnership with a strong partner and have a team who work together and allow this work to expand beyond my own biases. I have been stretched because of it.)
  4. Be in relationship with people who are different from you, especially those who are from marginalized populations, so that you have an expanded worldview and can gain perspective about the kinds of behaviour and beliefs that cause harm. If you don’t yet have such friendships, start by following strong leaders/writers/thinkers who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), LGBTQ+, differently abled, etc., especially those who clearly articulate how their communities are being marginalized.
  5. Be committed to having your biases challenged and your worldview expanded. None of us can claim to be free of bias or prejudice – it’s in the soil our society was built on and it’s part of the evolutionary development of our brains that’s helped keep us alive and connected to our communities. Some of those biases, in fact, are inwardly directed as internalized oppression. (For example, after all of these years of living as a fat person, I still have to catch myself in the judgements I make about fatness.) We might not be able to free ourselves entirely of harmful biases, but we can be humble enough to admit them and open to having them changed.
  6. BUT… don’t be so open to having your biases challenged that you’ll be easily swayed by manipulation and propaganda. Don’t be afraid to stand firm on your core beliefs. Check your sources, do some research about the origin of ideas and the people behind them, question things that seem preposterous, and look for wise researchers, thought-leaders and journalists whose analysis is rooted in good research methodology and who don’t use manipulation techniques in how they communicate. Use your logic to check an idea before accepting it. (For example, if someone tells you that ALL mainstream media or science agencies are corrupt and controlled by some dark force, contemplate, for a moment, just how many people the world over would have had to have fallen victim to some kind of illogical mind control. And then consider the danger of that kind of belief, the people who would likely be most harmed by it, and the people who most benefit from it.)

And now, for the sake of transparency, here are some of the things I believe:

  • I believe that Black Lives Matter. I believe that systemic racism exists and I believe it is the cause of many Black bodies being killed or harmed by the police.
  • I believe that, as a settler on this land, I need to commit myself to reconciliation and repair with the Indigenous people who were here before us and who were colonized by our ancestors (and that includes upholding the treaties and honouring their sovereignty and land rights).
  • I believe that climate change is real and that our capitalist greed has done damage to our earth. I believe that we need to act urgently in order to mitigate that damage.
  • I believe in the rights of LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities and I believe that we should, collectively, honour their sovereignty and dignity and work to create a society where they no longer have to face the harm that has been done to them throughout history.
  • I believe in science and I believe that, because science is built on a system of checks and balances and peer review, even when scientists make mistakes, there will eventually be better science that will reveal and correct those mistakes.
  • I believe that, though there is bias and some corruption in the mainstream media, and sometimes they may focus too much on certain things and miss other things that are important, there are a lot of hard-working journalists who have integrity and are committed to telling balanced and well-researched (and fact-checked) stories in the best way they know how. I believe they deserve our support and encouragement (and payment) to keep doing their jobs. I believe that there is great risk in relying only on biased, independent news sources, and I believe that many people become manipulated when that happens.
  • I believe that COVID-19 is real and that it wasn’t created by evil scientists or big pharma and that people are dying from it and unless we act collectively and responsibly to decrease the rate of infection, we risk putting many more people in harm’s way and we will over-burden our healthcare workers.
  • I believe that we are collectively responsible to do our best to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. During a pandemic, that includes following the guidelines our leaders and scientists develop, when they base those guidelines on the most current science available to them.
  • I believe that there is value in doing our best to strengthen our immune systems (and some of those things fall outside of traditional medicine) and I believe that we should ask for transparency about any possible vaccines and who stands to make a lot of money from them (thankfully, most of us live in democracies where we have those rights and, at least here in Canada, those rights aren’t being taken away), BUT I also believe that those things can distract us away from protecting our most vulnerable and can cause us to marginalize those who don’t have access to immune-boosting supplements, food choices, and practices, or have mental health issues or other challenges that create a barrier. I believe in collective responsibility and I believe that an “every person is responsible for their own health and for finding their own truth” mentality has the potential to do great harm.
  • I believe that QAnon is a cult and a system of propaganda for the far right (whose immediate purpose is to sway the U.S. election and control the most powerful country in the world). Like cults have been doing for centuries, it preys on people’s vulnerabilities, fears, and isolation, particularly in a time of disruption and insecurity like we’ve been experiencing with the pandemic. I believe that nobody is immune to cults, not even the most intelligent among us, because cult leaders manipulate people’s trauma and attachment systems in such a way that it makes it difficult to access the higher-functioning parts of our brains. Because of that, it is difficult to use reason to draw people away from it. (For more on this, read Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.) I believe that they intentionally manipulate people’s goodness and the things they care about (i.e. saving children from child trafficking) to draw them in. I believe that it is particularly insidious right now because it can harness the power of social media, and I believe it is particularly dangerous because it is mirroring the rise of Naziism in the days and months before the Holocaust.

Additional related resources:

What I want my daughters to know

photo credit: Matt Hoffman, Unsplash

Listen:

 

My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.

Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom. 

 

  1. You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
  1. You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
  1. You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
  1. You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
  1. Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive. 
  1. Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
  1. Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
  1. You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice. 
  1. You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
  1. Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.  I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them. 
  1. The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
  1. There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.

To read this post in Spanish (voluntarily translated by Iris Roldan) click here. 

What if I’m not a “nice girl” anymore?

photo credit: Gabriel Matula, Unsplash

I have been well trained to be a nice girl. So well trained, in fact, that, decades after that training took place, my body still goes into spasms whenever I even slightly deviate from the “nice girl” rule book.

Let me tell you… when you’re raised as a pacifist Canadian Mennonite farm girl, that programming runs DEEP. If we didn’t “turn the other cheek”, then we weren’t living the way Jesus taught us. If we weren’t painfully polite, then we were shaming not only our families, but our whole COUNTRY. If we weren’t sacrificing ourselves for other people, then we weren’t living out our faith. 

The list goes on and on. Don’t brag about yourself lest you be guilty of the sin of arrogance. Don’t stand up for yourself lest you incite an unnecessary conflict. Don’t let people know how smart you are lest you make other people feel badly about themselves (especially men). Don’t dress too provocatively lest you lead a man to sin. Don’t be angry lest you make other people uncomfortable. Don’t be too bold, too confident, too strong, too pretty, too smart, too obstinate, or too aggressive. Don’t swear, don’t be promiscuous, don’t argue, don’t dance… oh… and… while you’re at it, don’t say no or be rude when an older adult in the family wants to kiss you without your permission.

JUST BE NICE. Be agreeable. Be sacrificial. Be supportive. Be demure. Be modest. And… because we’re Mennonites… be prepared to be a martyr for your faith.

All of that conditioning resulted in this deeply rooted belief… if you are not a “nice girl” you will not be valued, you MOST CERTAINLY won’t get into heaven, and you will be rejected and shamed by your community.

Add to that potent mix the messaging that every woman receives – that if we are NOT nice and we don’t offer ourselves up as shock absorbers for men’s pain, we may run the risk of having their anger and violence directed at us. It doesn’t take very many situations where you experience the truth of that to become convinced that it’s the way the world works.

A patriarchal society values nice girls, because nice girls don’t take up too much space, they don’t claim too much power, they don’t challenge authority, and they certainly don’t threaten to overthrow the system that oppresses them. AND because nice girls are so cooperative, they police each other so that nobody else has to do the nasty work of keeping them in line. 

When that kind of social conditioning is woven together with trauma, it’s especially hard to root it out of one’s psyche. For me, there was the trauma related to the threat of hell, the fear of being shamed and/or rejected by the community, the fear of punishment, and the fear of having my life threatened by men who were stronger than I am. (For more about Religious Trauma Syndrome, read this article and the ones that follow it.)

When I look at all of this objectively, it all becomes so clear, and there’s a little part of my brain that asks “why don’t you just let it go and move on?” LOGICALLY, I get it, and that should make it easy to walk away from that programming and choose another way to live, right? Wrong.

When trauma and social conditioning are so deeply intertwined, they don’t respond to logic. They get stuck in our bodies and it’s our BODIES that activate our reactivity into fight/flight/freeze/tend-and-befriend mode. (That last one… “tend and befriend”… personally I think it’s the most helpful one for women with my social conditioning and trauma to understand when considering how we react. Our instinct is to make the situation safe for everyone and we do that at all costs.)

Because my tend and befriend reaction gets easily activated when I’m triggered, and because “nice” was so drilled into me as the highest standard and safest way to live, there are many, many times in my personal history when I’ve put up with the infringement of my boundaries (or didn’t bother to have them in the first place), when I’ve sacrificed myself for someone else’s comfort, when I didn’t stand up for myself even though I was being harmed, when I chose to overlook other people’s bad behaviour, when I masked my anger, etc. 

I’ve sacrificed a lot in order to be nice and it has taken its toll on my body and my emotional health. 

I’ve done plenty of personal work (therapy, journal practice, art practice, self care, sharing circles, etc.) to overcome that social conditioning and heal the related trauma, and I am far from where I once was, but the work isn’t over. I still get triggered and I still often slip into the pattern of sacrificing too much or overlooking bad behaviour. 

Recently, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to peer into my own shadow, and one of the things that became clear to me was that I needed to do more work to tend to my “psychic membrane” (the language I have adopted to replace “boundaries” – like a cellular membrane, a psychic membrane determines what comes through and what stays out). Some of that work was about allowing more in (joy, nurturing, love, intimacy, etc.) and some was about protecting myself from that which harms me. 

The problem with strengthening one’s membrane, though, is that it doesn’t always fit with the “nice girl” box that people want to keep you in. It might mean that you indulge in things that might have been branded as “sinful”, for example. And it might mean that, in protecting yourself from what harms you, you show your anger, you offend people, or you look too proud or “full of yourself”.

There have been several times, lately, for example, when I’ve become more firm about the behaviour I will no longer put up with, and other people have reacted with some version of the old “you’re not being nice” shaming that is so triggering for me (and was once painfully effective). Not long ago, for example, a person to whom I once went for a body-work session, spoke of that session publicly (claiming some responsibility for my growth) and I said it was unprofessional to speak of client sessions in public. She didn’t apologize and instead said that I should “stay open.” (ie. “Be nice and don’t call people out.”) Her friend (who’d recommended her to me) jumped into the conversation, said he didn’t understand why I was so angry (ie. “Nice girls don’t get angry.”) and then claimed to know more about my anger than I do. (ie. “Nice girls don’t get defensive when other people define them.”)

And then there were the people a few weeks ago who continued to comment on a post where I clearly stated that “this conversation is closed – all further comments will be deleted”, because my clear boundary apparently didn’t matter to them or they thought I’d be “nice” and still let them express their opinions. (ie. “A nice girl doesn’t make a fuss if her boundaries are ignored.”)

And, while I was writing this post, someone criticized me for asking people to properly attribute a quote that had been taken from my viral blog post. (ie. “Nice girls don’t insist on being given credit for what they create.”)

Every one of these times, my old “be nice or lose everything” trauma has been triggered and I can feel my body respond with a need to do something to make it all better and to be nice to people even if they’ve behaved badly.

Fortunately, though, I’ve learned to hit the pause button when that triggering shows up and to do the necessary self care so that the triggering has less power over me. And then, when the throat-closing-heart-palpitating-brain-spinning reaction has dissipated, I am usually able to respond with more clear-headedness in a way that aligns with my values and in the way I choose to care for myself without putting up with harmful behaviour. (ie. Some of the above-mentioned people have been blocked from my social media.)

The trauma trigger is NOT the truth and it is not the guide I choose to follow. It is simply my amygdala trying to do its job to protect me from the old outcomes that my body is convinced will result. But I am much more than just an amygdala – I am a person with a strong frontal lobe and with lots of tools that help me shift my brain patterns and calm my body responses.

I won’t get it right all of the time, and sometimes, especially when I’m exhausted or emotionally raw, my reactivity will still get the better of me. But I’m learning. And you can too. 

No, I don’t want to be a “nice girl” anymore. That doesn’t mean I won’t be kind (I have a LOT of patience for people who want to grow and learn and who take responsibility for their mistakes), but I don’t intend to be complacent when people do harm to me and/or people I care about. And I will challenge authority when it is destructive. And I will take up space. And I will work shoulder-to-shoulder with those who want to disrupt systems of oppression.

And you can too.

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